Guy Adams suspension, now lifted, punctuates Twitter censorship evolution

By now you know the story of Guy Adams — the British journalist for The Independent whose Twitter account was suspended after he torrentially criticized NBC’s Olympics coverage and tweeted an executive’s email address.

Adams’ Twitter account was reinstated Tuesday afternoon, after NBC retracted its request to suspend him. The reversal may help NBC regain some good will, but it still raises questions about Twitter and its evolution.

Not only does this particular event smack of heavy-handed special treatment since NBC is Twitter’s corporate partner in covering the Olympics, but it marks the latest milestone in Twitter’s eroding commitment to free speech and keeping its hands off your tweets.

Jan. 28, 2011: “The tweets must flow”

The story begins with this company blog post boasting “The Tweets Must Flow,” in which Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and General Counsel Alex Macgillivray declared “a practical and ethical belief” in the free flow of information (emphasis added):

Freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.

The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day. From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits.

At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule — we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.

That same blog post encouraged readers to follow a special “Freedom of Expression” Twitter list. Today, some of the 22 Twitter accounts on that list are critical of the company’s latest actions.

Jan. 26, 2012: “Tweets still must flow,” but…

A year later, Twitter hedged that proclamation. Citing international growth, the company said it would begin to censor certain tweets in certain countries subject to each nation’s regulations.

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression…

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world…

One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t.

July 29-31, 2012: The tweets must not target our friends

NBC vice president for communications Chris McCloskey said someone at Twitter flagged Adams’ critical tweets and reached out to NBC staff, who then filed a formal complaint so Twitter could promptly suspend Adams’ account indefinitely.

In a year and a half, we’ve seen Twitter shift from “we strive not to remove tweets,” to “we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country,” to now proactively reviewing content and suggesting to a corporate partner that they (wink, wink) might want to file a complaint so the company can suspend a critic’s account.

As Twitter has grown, it has naturally come into more contact with governments, advertisers and corporate partners. It has occasionally stood up to them. But users are right to be concerned about whether Twitter Inc. now values those relationships more than the freedom of individual users.

The bigger problem: Trust

A few months ago Spike Lee tweeted an actual home address he thought belonged to murder suspect George Zimmerman. He was wrong, and the elderly couple living there had to relocate out of fear for their safety. Lee’s account was not suspended (he did apologize).

BuzzFeed writer Matt Buchanan notes that “Justin Bieber wasn’t suspended for tweeting the number of Detroit teenager Kevin Kristopik to 4.5 million people — delivering literally a thousand times more exposure to a teenager’s phone number than Adams did to [NBC Olympics chief George] Zenkel’s email address.”

Buchanan goes on to adeptly explain the deeper problem Twitter has here — inconsistency and hypocrisy:

It’s easy to think Freedom of Speech exists on Twitter in part because Twitter cultivates that belief. …Which is totally great. The flip side of that coin, though, is that every time Twitter breaks that expectation, or appears to act capriciously, it seems more profoundly wrong than when Facebook does something remotely similar.

So it is difficult for Twitter to have it both ways with online speech, more so than any other social network or service. It can’t promote or imply the fact that it has freer speech than any other social network and then turn around and say, “BTW, there are Things That Cannot Be Tweeted” while imposing those rules in a way that seems arbitrary or ill-defined. It breaks trust.

Blogging pioneer (and strident Twitter critic) Dave Winer writes that this incident should prompt a gut-check for journalists using Twitter:

All this time the press has been acting as if Twitter were a public utility, when it is nothing like that. It’s a service operated for free by a private company. They don’t see it in any way as a public utility. They have good PR and have chosen a friendly logo, and they make jokes and they’re nice guys. But they’re running a business. And your writing is subject to their whims. And your recourse is nothing. Read the terms of service…

It’s time for journalists to take a serious look at this and decide if they are really serious about journalism.

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  • MaryAnn Johanson

    You might look into learning how to use quotation marks. And then you can redirect my response to your friend.

  • Anonymous

    MaryAnne, THAT was not my post, that was a relay of a friend’s comment, who did not know Guy is in LA, I knew that, of course, having visited his ”hot tweet potato” many times earlier. I am not defending NBC nor criticizing Guy. As for ego boost, MaryAnne, I dropped my ego in 1983. I suggest you do the same. Cheers, Dan

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    The briefest, easiest bit of research — like, say, clicking over to Adams’ Twitter profile — would show you that he lives, in fact, in Los Angeles.

    It’s cute that you defend NBC, though. Does that give you an ego boost? Or, wait: Is it possible this isn’t about ego?

  • Anonymous

    Twitter is nothing but an online bully pulpit for gangs of bullies and people who like to abuse others online without fear of getting “caught” (scare quotes mine) or called on the carpet. Facebook has stronger policies. Twitter has nada. That is why so many jerks use Twitter now to abuse others. Guy Adams just found out the hard way. Watch. this story has legs.

  • Anonymous

    friend on twitter tells me just now re Jeff Jarvis rant on same: ”oh god, the guy posted a private email on twitter and journalists get the vapors. sheesh. then we have some journalists saying, “i can google his name and find his email.” IT’S NOT IN TWITTERS EULA THAT TWITTER HAS TO GOOGLE THE GUYS NAME FIRST. the guy lives in the UK, gets the olympics live, and he’s bitching about NBC? huh? hey guy adams, NBC paid almost $2 billion and your ego thought that you could change their programming? Really dude, you thought that? NBC has been working on this Olympics SINCE THIS WAS ANNOUNCED and you thought by posting a private email on twitter was going to change that? Again…really? Calm the F down and take your lumps in public and in the future, DO NOT POST PRIVATE WORK EMAILS when it clearly says in twitters EULA, not do do that. Oy vey. This whole thing has gotten journalists in such “uproar” it’s comical.”

  • Anonymous

    No no no no. Guy Adams was in the wrong, Face it, and stop the conspiracy theories. I have noticed that recently TWITTER has become a bullying pulpit and an abuse platform unlike FACEBOOOK, where there are strict policies. Twittter has become the place to be a bully and abuse other and get away with it, just like online anonymous comments where people gang up on others. Guy Adams erred. admit it Guy. i hope this is a big wake up call for Twitter and all tritter users. STOP abusing tweets. Guy has inadvertently become a “hot tweet potato” yes , and scare quotes mine, but it’s his fault …Guy Adams he DID publish the eamil address of NBC and that is a NO-NO according to Twitter rules. yes or no?

  • Anonymous

    In Twitter drama, the company not only suspended Guy Adams’ account, they also showed NBC how to file complaint about him. Hugo Rifkind at the Times of London wrote, “Dear Business Insider. Important story, wrong @guyadams.” Sean Patrick Bowley with the Connecticut Post tweeted: “Et Tu @Twitter?”

  • Anonymous

    You’re thinking about dictatorship, not communism. Communism is when everyone shares everything equally because the government says so. Dictatorship is when a government, sometimes one leader, has entire say what happens in a country, including what people say. Many dictators are communists, not all communists are dictators.

    TL;DR: Lurk moar.

  • Anonymous

    You wouldn’t know what communism was if it bit you in the arse. Let me know when the government takes away your private property and ships you to a gulag. Of course, if you weren’t so ignorant, you’d know.

  • aleon lore

    Communism seems to be rampant by the IT world leaders and the US government whats up…